By Myra MacDonald
LONDON, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Mokhtar Belmokhtar lost an eye fighting in Afghanistan, swears allegiance to al Qaeda and named his son after Osama bin Laden.
As the assumed mastermind behind the seizure of foreign hostages at a gas plant in the Sahara, he has put Algeria back on the map of global jihad 20 years after its civil war made the country the theatre of a bloody Islamist struggle for power.
He has also burnished his jihadi credentials by showing that al Qaeda remains a potent threat to Western interests despite the death of its leader in Pakistan in 2011. And he has proved that a French military operation against his fellow Islamists in neighbouring Mali will not be contained within one country.
“He is a true believer in the cause,” said Aaron Zelin, an al Qaeda expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
A statement from Belmokhtar’s Mulathameen group claiming responsibility for Wednesday’s hostage-taking - which Algeria said its forces had ended on Thursday in an assault on the plant - demanded that France stop its military operations in Mali.
It also cited the battle being waged by al Qaeda-linked insurgents against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and condemned Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika - highlighting the many fronts on which al Qaeda is now fighting, despite the erosion of its central leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Born in central Algeria, Belmokhtar fought with the mujahideen in Afghanistan before returning home to join a civil war that broke out after the cancellation in 1992 of elections that Islamists looked set expected to win.
He has been heavily involved with kidnapping and smuggling - which earned him the nickname “Marlboro Man” - leading some to suggest he was drifting away from a commitment to jihad in favour of making money from crime.
But with many militant groups around the world, including, for example, the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network, raising funding for their operations through crime, analysts suggest the depiction of him as a criminal may be exaggerated.
“These characterisations of him as exclusively or largely being just a criminal, there has never been real support for it,” said Andrew Lebovich, a Dakar-based analyst who has closely tracked developments in Mali.
“He has a very long jihadist pedigree.”
In a rare interview with a Mauritanian news service in late 2011, Belmokhtar paid homage to bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al Zawahri.
He also cited traditional global preoccupations of al Qaeda, including Iraq, Afghanistan and the fate of Palestinians, and stressed the need to “attack Western and Jewish economic and military interests”.
Belmokhtar was inspired, according to the Jamestown Foundation think tank, by the late Jordanian-Palestinian scholar Abdullah Azzam, bin Laden’s mentor and a man whose ideology still has a powerful hold on the jihadi movement.
He probably went to Afghanistan after Azzam’s death in Pakistan in 1989, narrowly missing an opportunity to join the jihad against the Russians who withdrew that year, and instead fighting with the mujahideen against the government in Kabul.
Once back in Algeria, he joined a group that fought in the civil war against the military-backed authorities in Algiers and launched spectacular attacks on French interests in the 1990s.
The group would mutate several times to eventually become al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) - nowadays probably the wealthiest of the al Qaeda branches after reaping millions of dollars in ransom money paid quietly for the release of previous hostages. It and allied groups are now the targets of the French military operation in Mali.
Belmokhtar has been the object of persistent speculation that he may have split from AQIM due to rivalries with other commanders, notably Abdel Hamid Abu Zeid.
Such is the secrecy and lack of knowledge about AQIM, and the amount of disinformation believed to have been spread by various intelligence agencies seeking to break the group, that there is no way of knowing for sure.
But Lebovich said talk of deadly rivalries between the two appeared to be overblown.
“We know they are rivals,” he said. “My reading, however, is that they, or their personnel, cooperate, or at least share resources and space, more frequently than people think.”
Zelin, who tracks online forums closely, said AQIM appeared to have carried out a “controlled fragmentation” to strengthen itself against ethnic divisions by making way for different commanders to rise to the top of different groups.
Whatever the operational links between Belmokhtar and those fighting the French in Mali, it was clear the assault on the desert gas plant, which is likely to have had strong security, was carefully planned - almost certainly before French troops arrived last week.
“We know attacks like these take reconnaissance, target selection, training and manpower. It would be very high-risk,” said Henry Wilkinson of the Risk Advisory Group consultancy.
He said the attack would prompt counter-terrorism specialists to take Belmokhtar’s group more seriously as an al Qaeda-type organisation rather than a criminal syndicate:
“It suggests a much deeper long-term issue is at play.”
Anis Rahamani, editor of the Algerian daily Ennahar, said Belmokhtar saw Algeria’s south, with its high youth unemployment, as a recruiting ground.
“So Belmokhtar’s action is also aimed at attracting and hiring more young Algerians.”
Details of the Algerian operation on Thursday remained unclear, although an Algerian security source said 30 hostages had been killed, of whom at least eight were Algerian and seven foreign, including two Britons, two Japanese and a French national.
The gunmen who stormed the gas facility on Wednesday had said they were holding 41 foreigners. The British oil firm BP and Norway’s Statoil run the plant jointly with the Algerian state oil company.
In moving so quickly against the hostage-takers, Algeria, scarred by the civil war, which claimed 200,000 lives, appeared determined to deny Belmokhtar the drawn-out siege that would have raised his standing even further.
“We say that, in the face of terrorism, yesterday as today as tomorrow, there will be no negotiation, no blackmail, no respite in the struggle against terrorism,” said Communication Minister Mohamed Said, according to the state news agency APS.